A Trail of Ideas


A certain type of slime mold[1] spends its life as a single celled creature moving through moist soil or fallen leaves hunting down and eating bacteria.[2] While food is plentiful, the mold cells divide to produce offspring which take up the family business of eating more bacteria. This process of eating and breeding continues until the food source is depleted by population overload or environmental changes. When the mold cells sense that the environment is no longer going to be a sufficient food source it triggers a behavioral change. The individual cells start banding together to form an organism complete with skin, various sensors and the capacity to move as a singular body. The once identical individual cells now transform into specialized cells that serve a purpose of a community of cells rather than their individual selves.[3] We see this moldy band of slime brothers as a ‘slug’.[4] The slug is a collection of mold cells that is moving in search for a suitable place to spawn seeds to survive through a period of what is the equivalent of a famine or environmental disaster in human culture. Once it has found a suitable environment to carry itself forward through time, the slug changes again. It sacrifices part of the community of cells to form a stalk[5] and still others become reproductive structures[6] that will release seeds into new environments to begin the process of hunting and eating bacteria again.

If we examine the thought processes and behaviors of cultures and communities of the human kind we see the same principles of behavior expressed in slime molds replicated in humans-even if it is in more sophisticated form. An individual human or human culture under what it perceives as threat draws into itself, bands together and tends to move as a unit. It will also begin to sacrifice portions of its now collective body so that a remnant can survive intact to go forward in time. Nations and war are just such an example of the expression of the biological tendency we see in a slug in search of a suitable location to release spores. If we begin to understand culture trough a biological lens, a clearer perspective opens up on the biological foundations of what motivates different trends we see in our own history.

We can look back in time and see the tribal necessity of defensive and mobile behaviors when humans were still hunter gatherers and the food sources dried up. We can see how a nomadic culture could emerge from this relationship between the human biological form and the environment. We can see how males would be elevated in cultures that were formed around domesticated animals and farming practices during times of stress as part of the expression of stress behaviors on a community scale. We can see how this could translate into other portions of the culture such as religious and ritual practices and how it could shape world views. It could be noted that some of the sacrificial themes that have peppered many religious world views throughout the ages may be simply an intuitive expression of these biological necessities for survival that emerged as cultural glue so long ago. Biology attempts to preserve itself. Human culture is perhaps best viewed as a byproduct of that overall biological tendency more so than as an independent driver. In an attempt to carry on the delicate balance that biology depends on in the midst of environmental diversity, cultural ideologies may be nature’s way of coping with survival. It may be unsettling for some of us to face, but human culture is both as fantastic and as mundane as the slime trail of a slug.

[1] dictyostelium discoideum

[2] Escherichia coli among other bacteria

[3] A molecular messenger called Cyclic adenosine monophosphate (Cyclic AMP) and another substance called differentiation-inducing factor, coax the cells to become specialized to serve a function in the context of the slug body.

[4] This stage is called aggregation which forms what is called a motile pseudoplasmodium, also known as a slug.

[5] Called a “fruiting body”

[6] Called spores.


14 responses to “A Trail of Ideas

  1. This is a brilliant analogy. I will never again garden without seeing these creatures and having a deep existential conversation inside my mind.

    • I am really glad you like it. I tried to make the topic “sticky” so we can use the information to make wiser choices. As we also know from biology, sometimes this carrying forward effect of what was once of survival value can actually have negative value. Changing environmental conditions demand different behaviors, but cultural memes can persist in a kind of mindless mob rule apparatus when we look at ourselves as a collective cultural body over time. What once worked well as a means of survival may now have negative survival value and the process by which it is selected out can be quite painful for a biological population. It can also lead to extinction of an entire biological form. I hope we leverage our capacity to reason to minimize this potentially painful lesson on sustainability that reality asserts whether we like it or not.

      • You know where I’m mentally applying this thought–my field (education). On a personal level, it’s so very easy to say, “Yup, that’s the truth,” and apply this consciously. However, in fields that have been largely taken over by this–it needs a name–don’t want to say “slug theory,” because that implies lazy, and this is more Soviet…
        It’s tough to extrapolate oneself from entire organizations that think like that–you become somewhat of an outlier until you can shift.

        But the motto is, “Think honestly; Do the right thing.”

  2. This was very interesting to read and yields up some fertile soil for thought. Thanks!

  3. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    This is an excellent article – just excellent. So plainly put, and so thought provoking. I like the first commenter’s words.

  4. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    I loved ‘the family business of eating more bacteria’ because it’s like how we take on our family ways unthinkingly. It’s natural, mind, as it’s all we know for a while. But taking on the family business of perpetrating more abuse (eating more bacteria) is just not on…yet like I said, unthinkingly.

    I know that’s not the war theme you were talking, & jettisoning some parts of a mass’ culture etc, but that’s what got me thinking – I was thinking in that direction.

    Also fully loved your last line, re “as fantastic and mundane”. Excellent final statement.

    • It seems the stuff I am trying to get out there is connecting in the way I intend which is quite gratifying and frankly, thus far, rare at least in terms of the feedback I have received thus far. It is very helpful to hear how you are digesting it, so thank you for your thoughts.

      I agree that we can easily be caged and blinded by our “family” or cultural traditions to the point we don’t even recognize the cage much less the way out. I am trying to forge a useful and intelligible map for us to be able to be more intentional about cultivating a nourishing environment that contributes to our fullest most satisfied state of being. At the same time I am trying not to come across as knowing anything mystical, because I don’t.

  5. Incredible. First I found out Santa does not exist – and now slugs self-assemble. Life in its cold realities is cruel – and fascinating. I really look forward to gleaning more information for my writing from your studies. Fascinating. (!)

  6. Pingback: The Green Study “Worst Job I Ever Had” Contest: 1st Place | The Green Study

  7. Astonishing life cycle, and a good analogy to human society.

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